Thirty Years Ago in L.A.

By Glen Creason

The Ramshackle City Had Lost Its Luster

If you are reading this through progressive tri-focal lenses you probably know what life was like thirty years ago, maybe even what it was like here in Los Angeles circa 1971 when the launch of this newspaper was being planned.

Then again, that means you also lived through the '60s and have most likely forgotten everything. This may refresh fond memories for a place and time gone by like so many moons between now and your lost youth. If you are young, or just younger, you might hearken to what Oscar Wilde said: "The tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young."

No matter the reason, we are about to travel back three decades to the rebounding "valley of the smokes." Back somewhere between the dawn of disco and today's megalopolis.

There are parallels to today in that Los Angeles, back then, was a city trudging through recession and recovering from disaster. The age of the automobile had left Downtown reeling and bereft, no longer the center of commerce and activity. Suburban sprawl took the geographic centers out toward the Valley and San Gabriel or, horror of horrors, Orange County. Decay had galloped across the Historic Core and few people wanted to come Downtown to admire the one skyscraper or eat taquitos at Olvera Street.

The ramshackle city had lost its luster, and instead of citizens visiting the once bustling heart of the Los Angeles they just zoomed around on the freeways and shuddered at a place where the streets looked grimy and the buildings old. Added to the urban squalor were scores of indigents and homeless mental patients who had been turned out of the social program remnants of the Great Society by a governor bent on balancing the budget.

Downtown L.A. was more of an oddity than a destination for out-of-towners. Tourists rarely came past Temple or Beaudry except to peek out of the lobby of the Biltmore. Westwood, Hollywood, Beverly Hills or Ventura Boulevard were the happening spots and Downtown was a place where some folks worked. It was also a living Gomorrah and lesson as to what might happen if you didn't straighten up and fly right.

Skid Row around Fifth and Wall was a might rough where the original Hard Rock Cafe, a working man's bar, lured the lost to its watering trough. No tourists or guitars on the wall here. Pershing Square was a weird island of soap-box eccentrics who voiced colorful opinions and entertained college boys brave enough to check out the other side of life.

Signs of Life in the Old Dear

From the quaint Bunker Hill of writer John Fante we were moving toward the Blade Runner future. However, there were signs of life in the old dear, and an ambitious Master Plan to reinvigorate stale portions of the city had been set in motion. By year's end the Security Pacific Bank building, the gorgeous Convention Center and the mighty black-green towers of Arco Plaza accompanied the relatively new Music Center. Richfield Plaza, as Arco was originally called, with its then outrageous $190 million price tag, signified hope where Prudence Beaudry once grew oranges at Fifth and Flower.

On the horizon shone Broadway Plaza, a new YMCA, the UCB skyscraper, Crocker Bank and others. There was even hot air blown around about refurbishing the old firetrap Central Library across Flower from Arco. L.A. was on the move again.

When the plan began there were actually three downtowns. One was centered around the once wonderful Herald Examiner building at 1111 S. Broadway, where a devastating labor strike was stretching into its second decade. Near the Her-Ex was the city's previous tallest edifice, the Occidental building, which featured the best make-out bar in the city, on the 32nd floor.

Another Downtown was the Civic Center with City Hall, the Hall of Justice, the court buildings, the DWP and the Music Center. Lastly, there was Bunker Hill, with its torn-up teenager's bedroom decor, but a "new financial center" handle stamped on its landscape. The goal was to connect these dots to create a real big city.

The Sylmar earthquake had caused $500 million in damage and had taken 65 lives. The recovery from this disaster drained every cent from local budgets and created an air of anxiety across the Southland. There was an oil crisis, the drain of the Vietnam War, a weak stock market, factory closures, and fashion was dreadful. Tight money and polyester are a bad mix.

A Time of Challenge

It was a time of challenge. Ronald Reagan, that actor guy, was governor, "just plain Sam" Yorty was mayor and a fresh new kid named Joel Wachs had just joined the council. Familiar names in that august body included Tom Bradley, Gilbert Lindsay, Marvin Braude, John Ferraro, Ernani Bernardi and Pat Russell. The County Board of Supervisors were a group of heavy hitters who are now place names: Bonelli, Hahn, Debs, Dorn and Burton Chase. The Chief of Police was Ed "Mad Dog" Davis, a loose cannon who said stuff that would make Jerry Falwell blush.

Actually, the '60s were still raging, even though the calendar said 70-something. Hippies, protest, the civil rights movement and social change were at relative peaks. Lieutenant Calley was taking the blame for the massacre of innocent civilians at My Lai and the Pentagon Papers were hot topics on public radio stations KPFK and KPPC. On a much lighter note, Hot Pants were the fashion craze (even Joan Kennedy wore them!), sans-a-belt slacks ruled the Rotary meetings and an entire generation of young men were still at war with their barbers.

It was a time of social upheaval in Los Angeles as well as the country. We witnessed the Chicano Moratorium demonstration to end the war, the Attica Prison riot, the passage of the 26th amendment (lowering the voting age to 18), the founding of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH and riot police on Southland campuses. Los Angeles was no different from anywhere else in the country; we lived with a polarization of generations that was unprecedented. Family dinners with hippie-wannabe kids and parents worshipping archconservative George Putnam contained more friction than a barbecue with the Hatfields and McCoys.

Popular Culture

Still, Angelenos showed one of the broadest collective minds toward popular culture in America. The city was dotted with good bookstores like Papa Bach, Fowlers and Either Or, and locals were among the first to embrace the new dark humor of television's landmark series "All In the Family." The Sunset Strip was throbbing and anybody who was anybody in rock and roll stopped here for a visit. In 1971, the City of the Angels was pre-California mystic; it was the era before lite-cuisine, dim-bulb stereotyping, "working out," yoga, lattes and crystals. Most people ate red meat, drank booze and smoked like chimneys.

While locals attended the debut of conductor James Levine at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, while they went to see Heloise and Abelard at the Ahmanson or enjoyed the "Messiah" under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl, they also flocked to see Son of Flubber and put Dick Nixon at the top of their "Most Admired" list. Radio still had a strong foothold in the morning auto commute. The voices of Dick Whittinghill, Lohman and Barkley, Hudson and Landry, and even a young Britisher named Michael Jackson, counted loyal listeners here.

There was constant moaning about inflation back then, but prices seem tame in retrospect. Interested in a hilltop home with three bedrooms overlooking Silverlake Reservoir? You would have had to come up with $2,200 down and pay off a whopping thirty-grand mortgage. A quiet retreat high above Foothill Boulevard in La Canada with four bedrooms ran $44,950. Of course, one had to be careful with cash as gas had soared from 25.9 cents to an outlandish 42 cents a gallon in some stations. Levitz had five-piece dinettes for $137, Federated offered eight-track stereo tape decks for $37.88, a new gas range was $179 at White Front and you could get a bottle of Hai Karate cologne for men for a buck and a half.

I recall my fresh-from-college job as salesman for a scientific equipment company paying $500 a month with no sick pay, no vacation, no benefits and no excuses. If they didn't like you, they fired you that day. Even paying $75-a-month rent, those five bills didn't go too far.

Strange Ideas

While the eight-track lingered, some strange ideas began to surface. Something called the computer chip was developed by Intel, low-lead gas was introduced down at the Terrible Herbst Service Station and the fuel-saving compact Chevy Vega was named car of the year by Car and Driver. It was also Detroit's year of exploding Pintos and the introduction of the AMC Gremlin.

Mass transit was still a distant pipe dream in Los Angeles, and with streetcars long gone by the '70s it was drive, hitchhike or wait a long time for the RTD bus. Along with the leaded gas burning in thousands of internal combustion engines came deplorable air quality. The Air Pollution Control District told us many times about .35 plus parts of ozone per million of air.

Translated, that meant kids felt their chests burning in the mid-summer afternoons, and deep breaths could be quite unpleasant. Of course in those days about 60 percent of men smoked cigarettes, so going indoors did not mean much relief.

Yet Los Angeles continued to have a strange charm and Angelenos lived a life of great leisure despite the dark clouds of recession and unsteady ground. Few cities outside of New York can boast the resiliency of L.A., and we made it through the '70s just ahead of the urban reaper. We were distracted by entertainment all around us, and those few clear days with crystalline vistas of the San Gabriels that make it look like paradise.

Los Angeles, ever the hard-core sports town, was in basketball heaven in the '70s. UCLA posted its seventh title in eight years under the great John Wooden on its way to several more. The Lakers finally broke through for their first title, beginning the record-breaking season in 1971 and reeling off 33 consecutive wins in 1972. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Happy Hairston, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian and scrappy sub Pat Riley were our heroes in the Forum.

The Dodgers were rebuilding with youngsters like Steve Garvey, Don Sutton and Billy Russell, but finished just a game out of first thanks to old veteran Willie Davis. UCLA and USC football were at a low ebb with the Bruins and Trojans producing one of the rivalry's all-time most stultifying contests: a 7-7 snorefest. The Rams were in the last year of a true Los Angeles pro football tradition, just a year from the invasion of the dreaded Rosenblums and the eventual death knell of the Rams at the Coliseum. Tommy Prothro was coach, Roman Gabriel threw to Jack Snow and Willie Ellison carried the pigskin. I spent most of my time admiring the beautiful and talented Ramettes. That is what they were called, honest.

Where did we go and what did we do with that leisure time thirty years ago? Mostly we did what we do now except for the parts about wearing tight-fitting 501 jeans, brushing our luxurious dark hair, bending to tie our shoelaces without a thought to our lower back and partaking in risky behaviors weekly. We went to movies like The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or Dirty Harry. We listened to a lot of music and for good reason. That year alone produced "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors, "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, "What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye, "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin and, from the most popular album of the year, "Maggie May" and "Every Picture Tells a Story," by Rod Stewart.

It was the year we lost our rock hero Jim Morrison and the world's musical hero Louis Armstrong. It was also the year of the concert for Bangladesh and Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of us stayed home and read books good or bad, such as The Exorcist or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. And secretly we may have stayed home and blubbered our eyes out watching Brian's Song on TV.

Before Food Was Discovered

I can hardly sign off without mentioning eating in Los Angeles back then, since it has been a favorite topic through these decades. Los Angeles was not quite into the age of eating Aquarius thirty years ago. We had not discovered small portions, low-fat meals and the joys of tofu. Nathan Pritikin was safely sixty miles away in Santa Barbara. We were still a red meat, red sauce, heavy cream and butter town.

Although we were not the restaurant town we became in the 1980s, we still had great variety and a goodly number of fine dining opportunities. If you had money, which I didn't, you could go to Scandia, Chasen's, Perino's, or the Tower or the Windsor. If you worked for a living and had to keep track of that $500 a month, you may have chosen more expeditiously, including the beginnings of ethnic dining. Ethnic in the early '70s meant Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Greek and German. The glories of Thai food were almost non-existent and Indian, Central-American, Korean, Brazilian and West African restaurants were dreams of the future.

For the sake of brevity (hah!) I will limit my memories to the Downtown area. Los Angelenos more often than not went out to what was called a bar and grill, with names like the Bull and Bush or the Crystal Room. Steaks were the main attraction. Downtown alone offered Cook's, Edward's, Taylor's and Marcus steak houses. Down at Sixth and Witmer, old pal the Pacific Dining Car gave formal service and great chow in the original railroad car. At the Biltmore Hotel two fine dining establishments held court: the Empire Room and its formal teas (ditto at the Bullock's tea room) and Lancer's Inn.

The British Colonial motif kind of died out with the coming of the Civil Rights Movement. Cafeterias, the great remnants of Los Angeles culinary history, did brisk business. Schaber's, Finley's, Clifton's, Philippe's and Cole's P.E. provided quick, easy and belt-loosening lunches. Over on 15th Street Turner's Hofbrau Inn recreated pre-ugliness Germany complete with murals of Bavaria, oom-pah-pah music, liters of beer, wienerschnitzel, knackwurst and hearty rheinmaden waitresses. Mighty Vickman's in the Produce District served up some of the greatest breakfast and lunch in L.A. history while offering a stage to genuine characters gone but never forgotten. Little Tokyo had Japanese food but most remarkable was the throw-back Far East Cafe with its tiny, secluded booths and then-good Cantonese food.

Across the street stood the wonderfully named Atomic Cafe, where eclectic menus began in the city. My personal favorite was Blair's across from Robinson's department store, a fountain where one could feast on cheeseburgers, sip thick chocolate malts and eat slabs of famed cakes. Oh, the calories, er, the memories.

Down Sunset a ways were the steady triumvirate of Freres Taix, Barragan's and Nikola's, where diners could choose from Chicken Cordon Bleu, Enchiladas Rancheras or Slavonian Stew depending on the mood. In Chinatown, old-style Cantonese was king and places like Grandview Gardens, General Lee's and the Golden Dragon served egg foo yung in opulent surroundings. Then there was the immense and charming Little Joe's right across from the Chinatown welcome gate, where literally generations of Angelenos ate spaghetti 'n' meatballs.

Thirty years seems like yesterday for a native son who was first taken Downtown in the Eisenhower years. Originally I was brought to be told a cautionary tale about the guys who didn't do their homework and now lived on Skid Row. I looked out of Dad's Oldsmobile with eyes bugging, but then I got to have lunch at Langer's Deli. Eventually, around thirty years ago, I fell in love with Downtown Los Angeles. Once I realized that the streets held lessons beyond homework and that the history here was tangible if you paid attention. I found the place endlessly fascinating. Basically I came back in 1977 and never left. I may be a little closer to the finish line now but as Robert Louis Stevenson said, "old and young, we are all on our last cruise."

This article appeared in the Downtown News, October, 2001

Contact Glen Creason
Updated 13 November 2001